aad al-Din Ibrahim is one of Egypt's foremost sociologists and founder of the respected Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies at the American University of Cairo. He is also an outspoken pro-democracy activist who in 2000 dared to criticize President Hosni Mubarak's reported intention to install his son Gamal as his successor. Professor Ibrahim was peremptorily sentenced to seven years of hard labor and his center was shut down and ransacked. He was released three years later as a result of heavy American pressure.
Professor Hashem Aghajari is a prominent Iranian historian and political dissident. In 2002 he was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death for stating that people should not blindly follow the teaching of religious leaders. The verdict was reaffirmed in May 2004, only to be commuted shortly afterward to five years in prison in response to mass student demonstrations throughout Iran. As he was freed on bail on July 31, 2004, a tearful Aghajari told reporters, "I hope there will come a day when no one goes to prison in Iran for his opinions, let alone be sentenced to death."
As a longstanding member of the British Association for University Teachers (AUT), I cannot recall a single motion to boycott Egypt or Iran for these appalling human rights violations. Nor, for that matter, do I recall the AUT lifting a finger to ease the abysmal denial of academic freedoms and human rights in the Middle East, where repressive leaders supersede state institutions, where citizenship is largely synonymous with submission, and where physical force constitutes the main instrument of political discourse.
But then, in a mind-boggling decision taken without due process and against the wishes of the AUT executive, delegates at the association's annual conference last week singled out two Israeli institutions for immediate boycott: the University of Haifa, for alleged restriction of the academic freedom of a radical staff member, and Bar-Ilan University, for accreditation of a college in the West Bank town of Ariel, a disputed international territory whose fate, according to U.N. Resolution 242 of November 1967, is yet to be determined in peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
In practice, aside from being the only country in the Middle East where academics enjoy complete and unrestricted freedom of expression, Israel has done far more to promote education in the Palestinian territories than has any other country. The West Bank and Gaza universities were established by Israel in the first place--neither the Jordanians nor the Egyptians, who conquered these territories during the 1948 war, had allowed universities prior to 1967. During the two decades preceding the intifada of the late 1980s, the number of schoolchildren in the territories grew by 102 percent, and the number of classes by 99 percent, though the population itself had grown by only 28 percent. Even more dramatic was the progress in higher education. At the onset of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in June 1967, not a single university existed in these territories. By the early 1990s, there were seven such institutions, boasting some 16,500 students, as compared with 6 in Israel and 7 in the Irish Republic. Illiteracy rates dropped to 14 percent of adults over age 15, compared with 69 percent in Morocco, 61 percent in Egypt, 45 percent in Tunisia, and 44 percent in Syria.
But even if this had not been the case, the AUT would still be barking up the wrong tree. In accordance with the Oslo peace accords, in early 1996 Israel withdrew its forces from the West Bank's populated areas (withdrawal from Gazan towns and camps had been completed by May 1994) and dissolved its civil administration and military government. This was followed by the Israeli redeployment from Hebron in January 1997. As a result, 99 percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip no longer lived under Israeli occupation but rather under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. As the virulent anti-Israel and anti-Jewish media, school system, and religious preaching can attest to, during these years, any presence of a foreign occupation has been virtually nonexistent.
Were the AUT truly concerned about declining standards and restricted academic freedoms in the Palestinian universities of the West Bank and Gaza, it would have addressed its grievances to the real culprit: the corrupt and oppressive Palestinian Authority that has been in control of these institutions for nearly a decade.
That instead of doing so the association chose to single out a vibrant democracy with a distinguished record on human rights and extraordinary scientific and scholarly achievements for academic boycott resonates of darker periods in European history in which Jews were ostracized and denied free access to institutions of higher learning. Only now it is the Jewish State of Israel, rather than individual Jews, that is singled out for ostracism.
Academic discourse is about the free flow of ideas and the building of bridges, not exclusion and segregation, let alone on the bigoted grounds of religion, race, or nationality. The majority of AUT members must now resist the hijacking of their professional association for the political agenda of a small group of militant fanatics. Otherwise, this will not have been our finest hour, to say the least.
Efraim Karsh is the head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King's College, University of London.